Monday, June 24, 2019

Turning Off the California Stem Cell Spigot: Will Private Donors Step Up?

Benchmarks are important to the $3 billion California stem cell research program. When scientists fail to achieve them, the flow of cash from the agency disappears. 

Last week, the stem cell agency quietly announced something of a funding benchmark for its own, 14-year-old efforts.

The bad news? In just six days, the agency will shut off  applications from California stem cell scientists and companies for multimillion dollar awards.

The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), last Thursday said that its dwindling finances forced the closure. 

CIRM has only $33 million left for new awards and already has requests in the pipeline for $88 million. Private funding is a possibility, but major donors have not yet surfaced publicly.

Immediate reaction to the announcement was muted but ranged from dismay to tributes to the agency and the work it has financed. 

One scientist, Jeanne Loring, chief scientific officer at Aspen Neuroscience in San Diego, said the action was like "a rug being pulled out from under you." Loring also said in an email that the agency has built an "enormous resource in stem cell expertise in California" and played an important role in her own work at Scripps Research

Loring's work has received $17.4 million from the agency since 2005. (See the full text of her remarks here.)

Steve Peckman, deputy director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA, said the agency has chalked up "impressive success" and made California an international leader in the field. (See the full text of his remarks here.)

UCLA has received $289 million from the agency. 

Robert Klein, who led the ballot campaign in 2004 that created the agency, said the application shutdown will create a gap that will hold back development of critical therapies. Klein is expected to lead another ballot initiative in November 2020 to provide $5.5 billion for CIRM. (See the full text of his remarks here.)

Klein is chairman and founder of Americans for Cures of Palo Alto, Ca. He was also the first chairman of CIRM. 

CIRM has provided funds to about 600 researchers and 128 institutions and companies. The researchers run labs that vary in the number of employees, but the total would include  hundreds more stem cell workers. 

The agency is currently trying to raise $200 million privately to continue its awards programs between now and the fall of 2020. No philanthropic gifts have been announced. Queried last week by the California Stem Cell Report, the agency said that it had nothing new to report in the fundraising effort that began last year.  

It is unclear how the application shutdown will affect the fundraising effort. It may serve as a prod, however, for some potential donors and help to crystalize decision-making as CIRM executives stress the importance of the agency.

CIRM's announcement left open the possibility of re-opening applications come September. The agency expects to have a better handle then on how much cash might be returning to CIRM from awards that have missed benchmarks. The amount is not expected to be huge. 

The agency has reported that it has enough money to sustain a wind-down of the agency and to administer remaining multi-year grants, should the yet-to-written ballot measure fail. 

Klein is optimistic, however, regarding the prospects for a bond measure 16 months from now.  He told the California Stem Cell Report that unspecified polls show that 70 percent of voters support re-funding the agency when they learn of the "remarkable progress" that has been achieved as a result of CIRM-backed research. 

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